When the end came for J&A Transportation, the only surprise was how long it took. Federal regulators closed the trucking company on April 9 after amassing evidence of multiple and egregious violations of federal motor carrier safety regulations.
Those violations include lack of a drug and alcohol testing program for drivers, lack of an adequate vehicle maintenance program, dispatching vehicles known to be unsafe, exceeding the gross vehicle weight, and failing to keep or falsifying driver logs.
That’s an abbreviated list of the violations described in detail in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s out-of-service order against J&A. On top of those violations, J&A kept hauling freight after its operating authority was revoked.
But it still required nearly two years for the FMCSA to slap its out-of-service order on J&A and its owners, Joseph, Claytea and Watrina Armstrong, a step that threatens them with civil fines of up to $16,000 a day and prison time if they don’t comply.
That illustrates how difficult it can be for federal authorities to move against even those carriers that are demonstrably unsafe and in clear violation of federal law. When it comes to truck safety, the wheels of justice turn, but they turn slowly. Blame due process. A thorough investigation is required before the FMCSA can shut down a carrier, and that can take years when companies stonewall investigators.
Nevertheless, the FMCSA is pursuing an increasing number of truck safety violators. The Department of Transportation agency shuttered three trucking companies in the last three months, including J&A, Reliable Transportation and U&D Services.
Last November, the FMCSA shut down Gunther Transport and Clock Transport, two carriers operated by members of the same Maryland trucking family. Gunther, long under investigation, was involved in several crashes and one death last year.
The crackdown underscores the importance of shippers doing due diligence in researching their carriers, as well as the importance of new safety metrics such as the FMCSA’s Compliance, Safety and Accountability initiative.
The agency committed to getting more high-risk carriers off the road in a draft strategic five-year plan released last June. Increasingly, the CSA makes it easier for the FMCSA to hone in on those carriers. The CSA’s Safety Measurement System is built on seven Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories, or BASICs, updated monthly for each carrier. Exceeding a threshold score in a BASIC marks a carrier for FMCSA intervention.
Reliable Transportation, involved in six crashes since December 2011, exceeded limits in the Unsafe Driving, Driver Fatigue and Driver Fitness BASICs. J&A broke BASIC thresholds in Unsafe Driving, Driver Fatigue and Vehicle Maintenance.
Identifying an unsafe carrier is one thing; enforcing the rules is another.
“J&A Transportation has repeatedly defied FMCSA out-of-service orders and has not allowed FMCSA investigators to conduct mandatory inspections,” the agency said in its out-of-service order, explaining how its case against the trucker unfolded.
The FMCSA’s efforts to bring J&A into compliance with federal safety rules or get off the road dates back to July 2010, when the two-truck general freight hauler failed its new motor carrier entrant safety audit, according to the document.
J&A actually lost its operating authority on Nov. 1, 2010, but continued to operate. The carrier submitted a safety management plan that the FMCSA rejected as inadequate.
The agency said it tried unsuccessfully to schedule safety inspections, and finally deactivated J&A’s DOT number in September 2011. But J&A kept rolling.
From last September through February, J&A was cited five times for doing business without operating authority. Its drivers also were cited for safety violations.
The out-of-service order against J&A includes the company’s owners and even its drivers, a sign the regulators want to ensure they can’t restart operations under a new name as a reincarnated carrier, an all-to-common occurrence.
Reliable Transportation appears to have been such a chameleon. The FMCSA said Reliable’s owner, Jay Zachary Barber, started Reliable shortly after his previous trucking company, Factory Direct Foods, was shut down in January 2010.
It’s not just carrier owners who fail to listen, or comprehend an out-of-service order. “The Indiana State Police found that many of U&D Service’s drivers could not answer basic questions such as, ‘Where are you going’ and ‘Where are you coming from,’ ” the FMCSA said when shutting down that company in February.
In more than one case, U&D drivers who were told by police they were out-of-service simply restarted their trucks and drove away.